The Realities of Temp Work

by Eugene Puryear, published on Black Agenda Report, February 16, 2022

Poverty, wage theft, injuries, and even death are features of the temporary employment system. Black workers are over represented in temp work and are more likely to experience these abuses.

There are 13 to 16 million temporary workers who find their jobs through staffing agencies. It’s a fairly major part of the business world and many companies use temp workers to supplement their regular workforces with contracted employees that they can pay less. Most people think of temp workers as someone filling-in for someone at the front desk for a day somewhere at a medium sized office, but in truth they are widely employed for longer stints and are also found across the economy including with large companies like Amazon, Walmart, Google, and Tyson Foods.

A new repor t from a broad coalition of workers organizations — including the National Employment Law Project and Temp Worker Justice — concluded:

“Workplace deaths, lack of safety training, retaliation from bosses, poverty pay, rampant wage theft, and “permatemping” are among the abysmal working conditions endured by temp workers.”

The report is based on a broad survey of temp workers in the country.

Among the main findings of their research is the fact that

“Nearly 1 in 4 (24%) temp workers reported that, while working as a temp, their employers have stolen wages from them in at least one of three ways—paid less than the minimum wage, failed to pay the overtime rate, or failed to pay for all hours worked.”

The report also found that

“One in six temp workers (17%) reported experiencing a work-related injury or illness while employed through a staffing agency. Of those workers, 41 percent said that they covered healthcare costs themselves, out of pocket or through their own health insurance.”

The report laid out that the percentage of temporary workers receiving poverty wages is significantly higher than the percentage of poverty wage jobs in the workforce at large at 7.6% and 3.6% respectively. Moreover,

“More than 1 in 3 (36% of) temp workers reported that they or their dependents have received some form of public assistance while they worked via a staffing agency.”

Black workers are heavily over represented in the temporary labor market. The report lays out that, “Black workers are 12.2 percent of the overall workforce, but they make up 23.2 percent of temporary help and staffing agency workers.” In the field of manufacturing and warehousing, one in three temp workers is Black workers — double the overall concentration of Black workers in the industry.

Likewise the report found, “in manufacturing and warehousing occupations, Latinx workers are…30.9 percent of temp workers in these occupations, compared to 23.9 percent of overall manufacturing and warehousing workers.” There are even “‘Temp towns’ — areas with a high concentration of staffing agencies” that are “located in immigrant communities, where agencies target undocumented workers.”

The research also revealed that,

“Seven in ten temp workers (71%) said that they experienced some form of retaliation for raising workplace issues with a supervisor or management.”

Even in manufacturing jobs, and their reputation for better pay, temp workers are, on average, paid 21% less than workers more formally employed at the same workplace. The report also discussed the phenomenon of “permatemping” where employers bring in temps for long periods for the advantages of being able to pay them less, not have to offer any benefits and more easily violate labor laws. As the report notes:

“One in three temp workers (35%) reported that their current temp assignment had lasted over one year, and nearly one in five (18%) reported that their current temp assignment had lasted over two years.”

It’s clear that the temp staffing industry is explicitly designed to make it easier for employers to supplement their workforce with people who they can underpay, to steal their wages and exploit. And further that this industry exploits the racism and discrimination in the labor market to target more vulnerable sections of the working class. In other words, it’s one of capital’s methods for organizing super-exploited workers into easy to tap (and discard) pools.

Like with the gig economy, there is a common talking point that temp workers desire the “freedom” of such work. But in reality, 4 in 5 temp workers reported interest in joining a worker organization like a union that would work to improve their conditions. Just as more workers are starting to organize against anti-union corporations around the country, temp workers too are ready to fight back.

Eugene Puryear is the host of The Punch Out podcast and co-host of Breakthrough News . He is the author of Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America .

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